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Heart attacks in women: greater death risk, fewer feel chest pain

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(CBS) Women are more likely than men to die from heart attacks. That provocative claim is one of several gender differences found in a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

PICTURES: 9 surprising heart attack risks

The study looked at 1.4 million patients who had experienced a heart attack between 1994 and 2006 to investigate the relationship between age and gender and heart attacks, specifically symptoms and death rates. Data revealed 14.6 percent of women hospitalized with a heart attack died, compared with 10.3 percent of men.

Women were also much more likely to have a heart attack without any chest pain - 42 percent, compared with 30.7 percent of men.

"As presented in the media, chest pain is the hallmark symptom of heart attack. But many women, when compared with men, don't present to the hospital with chest pain," study author Dr. John G. Canto, cardiologist at the Watson Clinic and Lakeland Regional Medical Center in Lakeland, Fla., said in a written statement.

Other than chest pain, symptoms of a heart attack include upper body discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea or dizziness.

The study found the differences most pronounced in those younger than 55 years of age. Differences nearly disappeared by the age of 75.

What accounts for the gender difference? Further research must be done, but the study offers two potential factors. The first is biological differences in young women who have heart attacks, such as hormonal differences. Second, since many people assume chest pain is the telling symptom of a heart attack, many young women who experience atypical symptoms either delay going to the hospital or are misdiagnosed by doctors themselves.

The study offers a warning that heart attacks are not the same across the board, and that younger women in particular may have different symptoms that raise their risk of dying.

"Young women may not be recognizing that they are having a heart attack because they are not supposed to have them," Canto told WebMD.

What should women do to reduce their heart attack risk?

"We should use this study as an eye-opening bit of news to these women," Dr. Nieca Goldberg, cardiologist and medical director of NYU Langone Medical Center's Tisch Center for Women's Health, told USA Today. She recommends both women and men should know their cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar.

The American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign says women should know the signs of a heart attack - found here - and not wait more than five minutes to call 9-1-1. According to the AHA, 80 percent of cardiac events in women could be prevented if women made the right choices involving diet, exercise and abstinence from smoking.

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